CHAPTER VII. SHAKESPEARE'S EARLY PLAYS
The poet is credited with the authorship of some thirty-seven plays, though modern criticism has endeavoured to show that he took but a small part in the making of a few of these, and of the whole thirty-seven little more than a dozen were published during his life. It is supposed that his first play was the comedy "Love's Labour's Lost," in which he would appear to have gone to his own brain for the plot. Here we find a certain broad outlook upon contemporary life, with many a passing reference to matters of topical interest, while vivid recollections of life in Warwickshire among slow-witted rustics account for some of the humorous episodes. Historians can trace many of the references in the play, which is supposed to have been written in 1591, five years after the author left Stratford, revised in 1597, and published a year later. Cuthbert Burbie, who, like Shakespeare's earliest London friend, Richard Field, was a member of the Stationers' Company, was the publisher, and the printer was one William White of "Cow Lane near Holborn Conduit."
"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" came next, adapted from a Spanish source, and not published until the author was dead.
"The Comedy of Errors" is borrowed from Plautus; and then came "Romeo and Juliet," founded upon a novellino by Masuccio, who had taken the story from the Greek. It has served for many countries, but nowhere has the plot found such a magical handling as Shakespeare gave it. There is internal evidence to suggest 1591 or 1592 as the date, and Shakespeare was still a young man then, on the sunny side of thirty, and with the currents of his life no longer turned awry. There is here a ring of confidence and enthusiasm that three centuries have proved powerless to dull. After due revision, the play was printed in 1597 by John Danter, a publisher of rather evil repute. Two years later Burbie published an authorised edition.
Oddly enough, the success of "Romeo and Juliet" would appear to have been eclipsed by that of "King Henry VI." The events set out in the trilogy were sufficiently familiar to the people to give the work an interest that is almost fictitious. Criticism has shown that the poet's part in these productions was but small. Some say that Greene and Peele were the authors of the plays, that Shakespeare rewrote them perhaps with a little aid from Marlowe. Certain it is that Greene attacked the poet furiously when the remodelled work was produced, calling upon his brother dramatists of repute to beware of upstart puppets and "rude groomes." But Shakespeare was serenely unmoved by these abusive epithets, for which Greene's publisher apologised later. He was in the historical vein, and proceeded to write "Richard III.," in which Richard Burbage is said to have made a great sensation; the following play was "Richard II.," and the poet was clearly responsive to the influence of Marlowe in each of these works.
Shortly after "Richard II." was written and produced the plague visited London, and the poet sought the country. He may have written a small part, a very small part, of the "Titus Andronicus," and after that he picked the stage Jew of Marlowe and the rest out of the gutter, and gave the world in "The Merchant of Venice" a figure that commands keen interest not untouched with sympathy. "King John," bearing date 1594, is another piece of inimitable adaptation. By this time the "Venus and Adonis" had been published with a dedication to the third Earl of Southampton, and the poet followed it a year later with "The Rape of Lucrece," dedicated to the same patron.
These works created a sensation. Shakespeare the actor was already a familiar figure, Shakespeare the dramatist was known and admired, but Shakespeare the poet seems to have taken literary London by surprise. It is hard to say why, for there are passages in the plays he had already written that challenge comparison with anything in the poems; but praise from the great Elizabethans was not to be lightly won, and no poet could have sought to wear a worthier garland than theirs. Shakespeare was admitted at once to the most select circles. Queen Elizabeth became his patron. Greenwich, Whitehall, and Richmond Palaces witnessed performances of his plays, with their author taking some small part in them. "The Palace of Nonsuch," a private purchase of Queen Elizabeth's situated near Richmond, may still be seen in old prints—a charming place enough. The palace at Greenwich, coming right up to the banks of the Thames, is also to be seen in old prints, and it says all that is needed for the state of Father Thames in the poet's time that a royal palace could be lapped by our great river below London Bridge.
Shakespeare's capacity for writing makes us realise that the quantity was almost as remarkable as the worth. He wrote his plays at the rate of two in a year, with his work as manager and actor thrown in, and his poems as a thing apart. The quality of "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece" brought him into the company of the country's great sonneteers; he was inspired to give attention to the sonnet form and made it one of the vehicles for the expression of his most beautiful thoughts. The most were written about the year with which we are now dealing, 1594. In accordance with the custom of the time, they were not printed immediately, but were written by the poet and given to his friends. But by this time the interest aroused by new work from Shakespeare's pen extended throughout literary circles, and the sonnets must have been copied and quoted extensively before they were published by a literary pirate named Thorpe in 1609.
The dedication of these sonnets to "Mr. W. H." has roused an enormous controversy, into which there is no need to venture far, as it lies outside the scope of a brief biography. It should never be forgotten that the sonnet in the days of Elizabeth was a form overladen with the conceits of many countries, and that few men would have regarded seriously the sentiments to which they committed themselves. Suffice it that many of the sonnets are of a haunting loveliness that defies praise, and gives to the best-intentioned expressions of admiration a quality of impertinence. If for W. H. we read H. W. and forget the prefix "Mr.," the troubles that have agitated generations of critics are seen to evaporate. H. W. would become Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, to whom in the sonnets constant references occur. A pirated edition might well have been handled either carelessly or with a view to suggesting what could not be said openly.
Next in order of the plays we come to that exquisite fantasy "A Midsummer Night's Dream," in which we find references to Shakespeare's supreme patron, Queen Elizabeth, and to the pageants he had seen as a little lad when the Earl of Leicester entertained Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth (1575). In 1595 or 1596 came "All's Well that Ends Well," taken from an Italian source, and "The Taming of the Shrew," with an introduction dealing boldly with the Stratford country and some of its worthies, contemporaries of the poet. In the two-part play of "Henry IV." that followed we have further references to Shakespeare's birthplace, and he introduces us to Mr. Justice Shallow, who was to come into prominence again in the "Merry Wives of Windsor." Clearly the dramatist was closely concerned at this period of his life with certain happenings in the place of his birth. These references help us, in place of authenticated records, to show that Shakespeare still kept in fairly close touch with his early home. "Henry IV." is famous for its scenes in the Boar's Head at Eastcheap, and lest the enumeration of plays should become a little tiresome, let us turn aside for a brief space to consider the taverns of Queen Elizabeth's day and the company to be met in them.